Syria, long considered a moderate Muslim country, has become one of the world’s most radicalized conflict zones.
“Syria has become the cradle of a resurgent al-Qaida: a magnet for recruits, offering the skills, networks and motivation needed to produce another generation of jihadists,” says a new report by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR).
In December 2013, ICSR estimated that up to 11,000 fighters from 74 nations had gone to fight in Syria, more than “every other instance of foreign fighter mobilization since the Afghanistan war in the 1980s.”
A significant bloc of the fighters, up to 2,800 of them, are from European or Western countries, according to the latest report. It analyzed a database of social media files for 190 fighters from Western and European countries.
Peter R. Neumann, Director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and the co-author of the report, spoke to Syria Deeply about how modern messaging attracts foreign fighters, shaping the dynamics on the battlefield.
Syria Deeply: Syria has been called “a socially mediated civil war”: information captured and distributed on social media. What has been the impact? What are the long-term implications?
Neumann: It’s been good and bad. This is the first conflict that we can follow in real time. There are so many participants in the conflict who are on the ground, live tweeting and Facebooking, making it possible for people outside to understand what is going on inside.
But of course we also know that groups like the Islamic State are using social media very proactively, both in order to inspire and intimidate – these are the two principal functions the internet has for ISIS.
For example, the day before ISIS was planning to take over a couple of Kurdish villages, they were tweeting out pictures of executions and beheadings, basically telling people what would happen when they arrived. The vast majority of that town was gone before ISIS came. They didn’t effectively have to fight; they used social media to terrorize people to leave the town, to make them give up before fighting had even taken place.
They are using social media as part of their method of warfare in a more sophisticated way than any other group we know about.
Syria Deeply: How has social media played a role in recruiting foreign fighters to Syria?
Neumann:: It’s very well known that ISIS has a very sophisticated propaganda machine that works at different levels. It’s been very successful in creating an image of the Islamic State as an organization that is perhaps bigger and more powerful than it actually is. It also puts out seemingly attractive narratives about fighting the good fight, creating an Islamic State that looks after its people, and also being a strong and powerful enemy of the West. They are putting out this narrative through films, Twitter and through the fighters themselves.
It’s a multilayered operation that is geared towards creating an impression of the Islamic State as the caliphate, a powerful organization, and as an attractive proposition that people in the West and other countries should join. They are so sophisticated that they tailor their messages to different audiences. For example, their tweets in English are different than their tweets in Arabic and French.
While all of this might have a certain effect, it’s also true that the people who ultimately make the final step of actually going over to Syria are more influenced by their friends than ISIS propaganda. In taking the step to go over it’s still important to have real face-to-face relationships. Just because someone watches Flames of War or [sees] ISIS magazines, it doesn’t mean they are so entranced that they go to Syria. It’s not as simple as that.
Syria Deeply: What seems to be drawing in those supporters? What is motivating them?
Neumann: It’s important that we don’t look at foreign fighters as a monolithic entity. When it comes to Western foreign fighters, there have been a number of motivations. In the early phase of the conflict, 2012 and 2013, the principal narrative was genocide in Syria where the Sunni population were being tortured, raped and killed in a coordinated fashion by Bashar al-Assad with support from Iran and Hezbollah. The narrative went, ‘If being a Muslim means anything to you, you have to defend your sisters and brothers against existential threat.’
This year, with the creation of the Islamic State and caliphate, there is a different message, which is about building the Islamic State. The narrative is: “It’s the caliphate rising again, it hasn’t existed for hundreds of years, and you can be part of the brave young Westerners who will be talked about in a thousand years by Islamic historians as the generation that went over to help build the Islamic State. Even if your life is boring, mundane or bad, you can give your life meaning by becoming part of this generation.”
The third narrative is the idea of adventure, which is appealing to young men in their late teens and early 20s. “Come over, be one of the brothers, become a hero, do some fighting, be with like-minded people.” It’s like the biggest adventure holiday minus the alcohol.
Syria Deeply: Why are we seeing such a high number of European and Western recruits?
Neumann: The Europeans and Westerners represent maybe 20-25% of the recruits … 60-70% of the recruits are still from Middle Eastern countries. ISIS has been more consistent than other groups in producing European-language output. They are the ones, rather than Jabhat al-Nusra or any of the more moderate groups, who are putting out material in English, German and French, which is often produced by the fighters themselves. If you are a young British Muslim who doesn’t speak Arabic and you are looking for information about the Syrian conflict on the internet, you are most likely to find English-language content that comes from ISIS.
Since this year, they also seem to be the most powerful faction, and the one that most clearly articulates fighting for this idea of a caliphate. If you are radical already, than ISIS is probably the group you find most attractive. It’s also very easy to go from Europe to Syria. It’s a budget airline flight to Turkey, and then you transfer into Syria. It’s not something you need to save money or prepare for. And of course the more people go, the easier it becomes for other people to follow.
Syria Deeply: Who are the voices gaining prominence online? What is their message?
Neumann: One of the mistakes that is often made in reporting about ISIS is that the impression is created that ISIS is running a top-down, centrally coordinated social media campaign. There are a lot of people involved in the social media campaign who are cheerleaders of ISIS who are not formally associated with ISIS and who aren’t necessarily based in Iraq and Syria. They are clearly in support of ISIS and their mission, who have taken it upon themselves to become cheerleaders of the group, to push out the message and encourage people to go because they think it’s the right thing to do. They aren’t instructed by ISIS to do it, but they are articulating the message. The most liked and most mentioned and followed spiritual figures among the foreign fighters themselves were Ahmad Musa Jibril and Musa Cerantonio, two people who aren’t actually members of ISIS, and are based in the United States and Australia.
The same is true for the people we call “disseminators” who were pushing out, re-articulating, and at times translating ISIS messages for an English audience, like Shami Witness. Among the 10 most popular Twitter accounts among the foreign fighters themselves, there was not a single, official ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra account.
The official ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra accounts on Twitter that get most of the attention and the ones that governments say should be taken down aren’t actually very important.
It’s people like Shami Witness who are driving the traffic and creating the impression of ISIS/Jabhat al-Nusra social media being everywhere.
Syria Deeply: What measures are being taken to curtail their recruitment online? Is there a way to police and regulate the flow of fighters to Syria?
Neumann: It’s of course possible to police this a little bit, and it is important for big internet platforms like YouTube and Facebook to enforce their own rules that don’t need to be regulated by governments. There doesn’t need to be new laws. You would just hope that Facebook and YouTube would enforce their own community guidelines consistently. But we should not be under the illusion that this will be eliminated from the internet entirely, and that might not even be a good thing per se.
When it comes to people actually going over to Syria, the more concrete it becomes, the less important is the propaganda that comes from ISIS. Peer-to-peer contact is more important, being in contact with friends who went over and them facilitating your entry into Syria. The more you go downstream to the point that people are concretely thinking about going to Syria, the less important the internet becomes. It is really important in the beginning, when you are trying to figure things out and you are allowing yourself to be influenced, but when it comes to the operation of going to Syria, it’s about knowing people and communicating with them.
While the internet is important, we mustn’t exaggerate its influence. The one demographic for which the internet is very important is female extremists going to Syria. The internet has been a game changer for women …10-15 years ago there would have been barely any females involved in the jihadist movement. The internet has lowered the threshold for women to become involved. It’s a lot easier for them to meet and speak with other jihadists now.